Mount Holyoke College exhibit showcases the changing face of early modern Rome

Last modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013

It’s called the Eternal City, and it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world — a picturesque blend of ancient ruins, magnificent Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and modern vitality, with a fabled history that stretches back some 2,500 years.

But Rome wasn’t always such a popular place. By the late Middle Ages, the city’s population had shrunk to a fraction of its size during the height of the Roman Empire, historic buildings were crumbling, and other European cities had become more significant cultural and artistic centers.

But beginning in the 1500s, as a new exhibit at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum chronicles, the papacy and wealthy Roman families initiated a dramatic revamping of Rome, commissioning artists and architects for major building projects designed to reestablish the city’s preeminence, particularly as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Over the next 250-odd years, Rome took on a much more modern look, one that drew millions of visitors and pilgrims.

“Vedute di Roma,” or “Views of Rome,” captures this era of transition with a collection of prints by period artists, some of whom made their reputations by sketching the changing face of Rome and selling copies of their work to tourists. The prints, drawn almost entirely from the museum’s collection, also include a historic, detailed map of Rome’s center that served as a blueprint for maps of the city for the next few centuries.

Emily Wood, the curator of the show, says part of the exhibit’s appeal lies in the variety of the prints. Some artists took a straightforward approach to depicting new buildings, streets and famous Roman landmarks, or even drew them as almost architectural blueprints, like a cutaway view of the Pantheon that shows part of the interior.

Other artists, like Giovanni Battista Piranesi, offered more stylized interpretations of the changing city, altering details to create a certain mood or employ a bit of humor. Piranesi, for instance, an 18th-century artist who made his prints from copper engravings, was fond of juxtaposing grand buildings and plazas with more humble circumstances, such as dogs running in the foreground of the picture and dirt and mud rippling underfoot.

In a print of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, ornate carriages carrying aristocratic tourists trundle along on one side of the picture, while roughly clad workers can be seen to the right — along with a man who’s urinating against a low wall.

“Many of the grand tourists were English, and Piranesi had learned that public urination could be pretty common in London, so this could have been something he did for their benefit,” Wood said with a laugh.

Another of Piranesi’s prints is of the Piazza del Popolo, or People’s Plaza, the main northern entrance to Rome. Though most of the city’s streets were still quite narrow in that era, Wood notes, Piranesi — as though in anticipation of a more modern cityscape — depicted a broad open area with major boulevards leading off from the plaza.

“Tourists who had seen this print would be confused that the real view didn’t quite match the print,” said Wood, a 2009 Mount Holyoke graduate currently serving in a two-year fellowship at the museum.

Overcoming scandal

Wood also notes that many of the grand projects built in Rome during this era were churches and other religious monuments, such as the San Pietro in Montorio. The works were often commissioned by popes and their entourages, who were trying to overcome a previous period of scandal in the Catholic Church, such as popes fathering children or practicing nepotism.

Those issues would in part provoke the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, in turn prompting the Vatican-led Counter Reformation and the religious wars of the 1600s. All this turmoil, Wood notes, gave the papacy and wealthy Roman families further incentive to try to boost Rome’s stature with new architecture.

Beginning with the Renaissance, the city became a nexus for some of the most prominent artists and architects of the era, including Michelangelo and Botticelli, and Wood points out that artists continued to be drawn to the city: All of the artists whose work is featured in the Mount Holyoke exhibit came to Rome from somewhere else.

Tourists and pilgrims began making their way in droves to the city as well, particularly in the 1600s and 1700s, Wood says. The numbers seem astonishing: About 500,000 visitors came in 1600 alone, which had been declared a year of Jubilee, or Holy Year, by Pope Clement VIII. This was at a time when Rome’s population was perhaps 140,000, compared to 1 million during the height of the Roman Empire.

English tourists, mostly aristocrats and landed people, were particularly drawn to Rome in the 1700s, Wood says: “It was considered part of their classical education.” And many of those tourists had been lured in part by prints by artists like Piranesi and Giuseppe Vasi, who sold them, and could make “a comfortable living” by doing so, Wood says.

These artists were essentially the first to preserve a view of Rome that can be recognized today — one in which modern buildings, ruins and still-robust monuments of the Roman Empire, such as the Pantheon, might all be contained in one view. Their work was based on surveying and other scientific principles, and as such moved away from the kind of symbolic and religious imagery that had dominated medieval depictions of the city.

A particularly good example of surveying can be seen in a highlight of the museum’s exhibit: Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome, which experts consider a landmark achievement in its detail and presentation. It’s known as an ichnographic map, one that assesses its subject from more of a ground-level view, rather than bird’s-eye perspective. Between surveying, engraving and printing, Wood says, it took Nolli, an architect and surveyor, more than 10 years to make the map. The final product is composed of 12 sheets that, when placed together, measure about 6 by 7 feet.

Not only does Nolli’s map match satellite images of Rome to within a tiny degree of error, it shows hundreds of sites of historical significance, with a level of detail that includes fountains, stairways and building interiors. The map, while focused on Rome’s historic center, also details an outlying area of the city that came to be known as the disabitato, or uninhabited place. This region had been built up in ancient Rome but was mostly composed of orchards, gardens, farmland and private villas during Nolli’s time.

As such, the map seems a fitting counterpoint to the artistic drawings of the new face of Rome that had emerged by the mid 1700s, Wood said.

“All of these works really capture a pretty dramatic change in the city.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Vedute di Roma” will be on display at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum through May 26. Museum hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.. Admission is free.


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